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Back to News Updates – January 21, 2020


Native Plants Awaiting Our Attention

Asclepias purpurascens
Asclepias purpurascens, or purple milkweed

Native plants are not just trendy additions to your home garden but provide lasting beauty and ecological value to the landscape. On Saturday, February 15th, learn about less popular but very necessary native plants species that enliven the world around us during Beyond Echinacea: Native Plants Awaiting our Attention from U.S. Botanic Garden Curator of Plants, Bill McLaughlin. Below is a Q+A with Bill about the benefits of gardening with native plants and where to find interesting new species to cultivate in your home garden.

A close up of Cunila origanoides, or American dittany.
Maryland dittany (Cunila origanoides) in its mid-morning September glow

Mt. Cuba Center: What are some plants that you think would do well in the trade?

Bill McLaughlin: These are my observations as a gardener, my personal perspective. I want to talk about two plants that are really in our midst and those from farther away and their suitability here, as well as cultivars versus hybrids, and how to find plants. I’ll probably talk mostly about herbaceous perennials, with a few trees thrown in for fun. It’s been interesting to build a garden with mid Atlantic plants appropriate for the area and with things I could find locally and that weren’t in the trade. It’s surprising to me there’s a Hypericum called St. Andrew’s cross, and it’s a little semi evergreen shrublet about a foot and a half high. I’m shocked by the interest from landscapers who want to know where to get it. Another one is Maryland dittany, Cunila origanoides . It tolerates drought, attracts pollinators in the season, and the form I have has never had powdery mildew. We’ve thought of native plants as from the wild and a little messy, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Another favorite is flowering spurge, Euphorbia corollata — poor soil is actually its jam! It’s long-blooming. It will literally bloom from May to October, and can be a great plant for flower arrangers, and can be equivalent to baby’s breath. I’ve tended to think of native plants as a challenge and to think of what I can do in different contexts. I’ll put a variegated Virginia creeper in a container with something to climb. I’ll throw in some vines, I love our little native Clematis viorna—leather flower— everyone who comes through the gardens is charmed by it—attractive flowers and seedheads. I’m trying a native morning glory–Ipomea panderata, or man-of-the-earth—and it’s a fantastic plant! There’s no reason not to use natives in containers. I’m super sensitive about plants because I have a tiny garden and neighbors so anything that runs underground is a no for me. Whether it’s looking for a species within a genus that doesn’t do it (Physostegia ‘Miss Manners’) sometimes within a species there’s individuals that have shorter rhizomes, but I’ve relegated some plants to containers, or I’ve bound them with concrete, like the sumacs, and some really perform well.

Close up image of Euphorbia corollata, or flowering spurge.
Euphorbia corollata, or flowering spurge, captured in its late August glory

Mt. Cuba Center: What makes a fantastic plant?

Bill McLaughlin: Growability, first of all. There are a lot of plants that require specialized conditions and so they’re not necessarily going to make it in the marketplace. Long season of bloom is always nice, but more importantly pollinator services like how many critters they support—we’re big fans of Doug Tallamy’s work and Annie White’s work here. We’re learning in some cases that it doesn’t make much difference if you’re using a cultivar, hybrid or wild form of a plant, and in other cases it does. If you want a double-flowered Echinacea or a purple Lobelia, you might be ripping off your pollinators. I think a lot of us live in urban environments, so heat tolerance becomes important. The pliability of the soil—for instance some plants that are strictly coastal plain denizens do pretty well in amended soil while others don’t thrive, no matter how much you try.

Mt. Cuba Center: Which plants do people find in garden centers, and which ones should they be able to find?

Bill McLaughlin: A lot of people feel better that they’re planting a native when they plant Echinacea. Yeah, it’s a north American native, and its selections and some hybrids are feeding goldfinches and pollinators, but there’s really only one Echinacea that’s been native to our area in the northeast and that’s E. laevegada, or smooth coneflower, and that’s on the list of endangered species! It’s not in gardens. But another plant that we have in the Mid-Atlantic Native Plant Garden at USBG that everyone loves is Solidago plumosa, or Yadkin river goldenrod. This was a plant that was thought to be extinct due to dam building projects in North Carolina, but it was re-found in the late 80s. People seem to feel that because it’s rare that they maybe can’t—or shouldn’t—sell it and yet it is not on the endangered species list. But it’s a goldenrod that’s not aggressive underground, that seeds modestly, that has great aesthetic attributes and is loved by pollinators—it should be used.

Bee on Asclepias tuberosa, or
A bee pollinating butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Mt. Cuba Center: How do gardeners find out about “new” or newly available native plant species, and how do they get their hands on them?

Bill McLaughlin: The nice thing about my profession is that I bump into people at other gardens, but really like anyone else I try to join native plant societies and attend native plant sales. Almost all societies have sales, and that’s not just to find the plants but to find the people—you’ll often find a nursery person and find a growers or collectors who has more than what’s available for sale there. I’m not really a social media guy, but Facebook, Flickr and Instagram have a lot of botanists, naturalists and geologists who take great photos and know where plants are. You can make discoveries that way. For me it helps me find out where to collect from the wild to bring to gardens and make them available to the public. I’ve also run into cool native plants from looking at specialty nurseries and companies that sell butterfly larval hosts; they’ll really have some oddball plants. Aquatic plant nurseries, carnivorous plant nurseries and green roof nurseries may sell plants that other nurseries don’t have. With monarch mania you can find new Asclepias that you wouldn’t otherwise find in the trade.

On February 15th, discover new garden-worthy species and cultivars from horticulturist Bill McLaughlin, as he brings his perspective on gardening with native plants for the past 13 years. Register for Beyond Echinacea: Native Plants Awaiting our Attention here. Lecture takes place on Saturday, February 15th from 11 AM to 12:15 PM.